Bringing together public defenders from Latin America to celebrate World Refugee Day

In the Latin America and the Caribbean region, countries are struggling to accommodate the largest influx of migrants and displaced people, especially Venezuelans in the century. It is in this context that the DPU requested support from MIEUX+ to acquire new skills and provide legal support to migrants and asylum seekers through training, awareness-raising materials and institutional knowledge and exchange with their Latin American counterparts.

Launched in January 2021, the Brazil III Action has the ambition to bring together institutions involved in legal assistance to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees all over Latin America to exchange on the challenges, good practices and the effects of the pandemic. To honour World Refugee Day, MIEUX+, the Brazilian Public Defenders’ Office (DPU) and the MERCOSUR Public Defenders’ Network (BLODEPM) organised a regional webinar to give the voice to public defenders in the continent to exchange and learn from each other on 17 June 2021.

BLODEPM, partner in this event, is one of the key entities bringing together public defenders from Latin America and supporting them in discussing key issues in order to provide the best free legal assistance to migrants and asylum seekers. The moderator, Ms Roberta Alvim, Public Defender at the Brazilian DPU, highlighted the ever-growing need to strengthen regional-level dialogue and share good practices between peers.

Setting the scene: what is it a stake and why?

There are number of drivers of international migration flows in the Latin America and the Caribbean region such as globalisation of economies, internal conflicts or climate change. Since 2014, the economic and social crisis in Venezuela has led to the exodus of more than 5,4 million Venezuelans (according to government figures), making it the second largest globally after the Syrian crisis.

Latin American countries experienced this large inflow of Venezuelan migrants in a short period creating pressure for public services and national institutions to accommodate these populations, often crossing the borders in vulnerable situations. Different measures have been adopted to simplify the regularisation of Venezuelan migrants, such as the granting of temporary and permanent residence permits as an alternative to an often very lengthy asylum procedure.

Since the turn of the century, most South American countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay – have adapted their national migratory laws, turning them into more comprehensive policies with a key focus on respecting migrants’ rights. In parallel, South American countries have improved the institutional capacity of migration offices, facilitating access to residency permits, border controls and sharing of information between states.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused an additional burden to these current efforts and changed the way public officials work with closed offices or remote assistance. In this context, it is particularly important to foster a dialogue at regional level, exchange of the challenges and share good practices between peers experiencing similar situations.

Bringing regional experiences together to celebrate the World Refugee Day

The webinar drew an audience of over 150 participants from all over Latin America and featured key note speeches from renowned public defenders in the region; M. Santiago Finn from Argentina, Mr. Joao Chaves and Ms. Jeane Xaud from Brazil, Mr. Ángel Torres Machuca from Ecuador and Ms. Natalia Ortellado from Paraguay. They identified key challenges faced by their institutions, the impact of COVID-19 in their day-to-day work in assisting migrants and refugees, and, maybe more importantly, shared good practices that could be replicated in other countries.

  • Argentina: Mr. Santiago Finn highlighted the importance of being an independent service in order to bring the best legal assistance to asylum seekers. Created ten years ago, the Commission for Comprehensive Assistance and Protection of Refugee and Asylum Seeker, composed of nine lawyers and three magistrates, provides legal assistance at all stages of the asylum application cycle, including appeals, and collaborates with tutors of unaccompanied migrant children; provide legal counsel for settlement procedures, citizenship application interventions, and family reunification. An interesting practice is the fact that the Commission counts with one anthropologist and one social care worker among the staff, which emphasises the holistic approach to assistance and protection.

    When it came to adapting to COVID, as the Government allowed online asylum claims the Commission began working from home and remotely. However, this proved to be a double-edged sword: although in principle asylum seekers had easier access to the lawyers, not all were digitally savvy or did not have digital tools available to submit a claim or proceed with their case. Although the asylum claims could be submitted online, asylum interviews were still done face to face, which caused a big bottleneck because of safety measures.

    Finally, Mr. Finn highlighted the importance of capacity development of all institutions involved in the asylum claim process, including the judiciary and staff at international border posts. His aim is for the Commission to reach a greater number of asylum seekers and that through their work, the overall rate of recognition, which currently stands at 10% in Argentina, to increase.

  • Brazil: Public Defenders Dr Joao Chaves e Dr Jeane Xaud pointed out that of the 40,000 refugees in the country, 30,000 were recognised in 2019, a large part being of the Venezuelan flow. Brazil historically had a small flow of recognised refugees due to the deficit and lack of staff of the National Committee for Refugees (Conare): there are 160,000 requests pending decision for only 16 interviewers.

    In addition, similar to Argentina, the refugee system in Brazil has been gone online which represents a technological advance. However, it was highlighted by the public defenders that the online environment is not contributing to the acceleration of recognition of refugees. As most of the countries, the COVID-19 pandemic affected their work because of the sanitary measures of social distancing, making the face-to-face interviews a challenge both for the public defender and the refugee. Dr Jeane Xaud, who works at the State of Roraima (border between Brazil and Venezuela), described the challenges and difficulties they have been facing in the ‘front line’.

    Collaborating with MIEUX+ and other partners represents an important opportunity for the DPU to quality their work, build more capacities and content and establish a framework for adequate legal defence in all migratory processes.

  • Ecuador: When COVID hit Ecuador, Mr. Ángel Torres Machuca, Public Defender General, petitioned the Chancellor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to forego the procedural deadlines in asylum cases. Their positive decision enabled better assistance to asylum seekers during the pandemic.

    Ecuador’s network of 667 public defenders and 188 points of contact all over the territory is hailed as a good practice from EUROSOCIAL and other Public Defenders’ in Latin America; students in Law Faculties certified by the Public defenders complement their work. Between 2017 and 2019 the Ombudman’s office assisted in 12,088 asylum cases; the caseload jumped to double its amount from 2017 to 2018, with a roughly 50% of claims lodged by Colombians and Venezuelans. This trend continues; in 2020 alone, they assisted in close to 9,000 cases and during the first months of 2021, they intervened in 3,900 cases.

    Capacity development is also a defining feature; 80% of Public Defenders, administrative staff and others at the Ombudman’s Office have been trained on international protection in collaboration with UNCHR.

  • Paraguay: The Public Defenders’ Office of Paraguay was created in September 2019, making it the youngest office amongst the ones presented during the webinar. It counts with five public defenders who provide assistance to refugees and migrants as well as any mobility related issue. Despite the fact that the country is mainly an origin country than destination, Dr Nathalia Ortellado highlighted the great advance for Paraguay to create such body to provide legal assistance to vulnerable populations, and in specifics to refugees as its number have triplicated in the past years with the Venezuelan crisis.

    The ambition of the Public Defenders’ Office is to be able to provide legal assistance and represent the refugees in front of the judiciary bodies. COVID has been a big challenge for Paraguay as its frontiers are very permeable and the public defence needs to be ready to represent and be there for anyone in a vulnerable position, this being an unaccompanied child or for family reunification.

    Dr Ortellado emphasised the importance of continuing their work on the ground and on continuing to nurture spaces of discussions and exchanges as crucial to building more capacities and learn from each other’s’ practices.

As highlighted by Dr Jair Soares Junior, Brazilian Deputy Federal Public Defender (DPU): The partnership with MIEUX+ and BLODEPM in the context of this webinar, is of fundamental importance for the consolidation of the work flow that has been established with regard to the asylum application process. Today, our aim is to mark the week which of World Refugee Day and to recall that public defenders have a key role to play in advancing policies and justice for people on mobility.”

The importance of the collaboration between MIEUX+ and the DPU was also mentioned by Alfred Woeger, MIEUX+ Senior Project Manager in his opening speech: “On behalf of the joint EU-ICMPD initiative, MIEUX+, we are very pleased to support this webinar and the efforts of bringing together the voices of public defenders in Latin America. It is a shared responsibility as enshrined in the Global Compact on Refugees.”

Next steps

This regional webinar is one of the several activities planned in the context of the Brazil III Action collaboration with the DPU. Having identified access to reliable information as a key need of asylum seekers in Brazil, the team is now working on the production of two information videos on the asylum application process and the rights of migrants and refugees. As echoed by the interventions from the different public defenders, capacity development is a key component of a comprehensive approach to protecting the rights of asylum seekers also in this Action, and for this purpose, an online course to train public defenders and members of civil society organisations on international protection is also being prepared.

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